Junior lawyers must be equipped with the right skills to manage their mental health in the workplace – a fundamental rethink of law firm culture can help make this happen.

World Mental Health Day takes place today. This year, it focuses on young people and mental health in a changing world. 

At LawCare, we are concerned about law students and young lawyers. Research released last month by the World Health Organisation revealed that one in three first-year university-level students report symptoms of a mental health disorder. Universities minister Sam Gyimah wrote to university vice-chancellors across the country in September, asking them to prioritise student mental health.

Some 45% of calls to the LawCare helpline are from students or junior lawyers, struggling with a range of issues, including anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, financial worries, difficulties with bullying, and homesickness. Many are questioning whether they are in the right career, or will have their training contract terminated or prolonged unexpectedly.

In addition, the results of the 2018 Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and Wellbeing survey found that over 82% of respondents reported either regularly or occasionally feeling stressed in the month before completing the survey, with 26% of those individuals being severely/extremely stressed. 

So what is causing young people in the law to experience these problems? Many young people who embark on a career in the law are not well prepared for the competitive, hierarchical, long-hours culture and this can significantly affect their mental health and wellbeing. They are often perfectionists, putting huge amount of pressure on themselves, and are terrified of making mistakes. They have spent years and lots of money studying, fought off competition to get an elusive training contract or pupillage, sometimes moving far from home, only to find that life in the law is not quite what they imagined.

As a profession, we need to come together to address these problems. At the Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce roundtable in May, we discussed these very issues and how to combat them. The panel of experts agreed that to combat the growing problem of stress in the legal profession. as well as ensuring its sustainability, the following suggestions would help: training law students in emotional competency, with better collaboration between regulators and educators on this issue; upskilling those in practice; and from the top a change in culture in law firms and chambers. 

Equipping law students with the right skills to manage life in the law and to successfully transition into practice, together with the ability to bounce back from setbacks and challenges, could mean a lower drop-out rate in the early years of practice, as well as supporting better wellbeing.  There are many examples of best practice in this area. At the University of Birmingham law school they run a drop-in session, two hours each day in term time, for law undergraduates to come and talk to staff about anything non-academic that is worrying them. Some 1,500 students used the service last year. In Ireland, students complete a module called ‘Shrink Me, I’m a Lawyer’ where they learn about a range of mental health issues, such as imposter syndrome and self-care strategies for coping. They are also offered free counselling sessions.

Once in practice, senior leaders need to do more to train, support and mentor junior staff and support a working culture that positively encourages wellbeing. At LawCare, we often hear from callers to our helpline about managers who are making their lives unbearable. One caller told us: ‘I was told by my supervisor on my first day, “I am going to break you”. She overloaded me with work, berated me publicly and was unpredictable and inconsistent.’ This kind of working environment benefits no one. Studies have shown that if you are poorly managed, this is the number one cause of stress at work.

What can really help is having an open, transparent culture where senior leaders are approachable and talk freely about the stresses and strains of working in the law, overcoming difficult situations, making mistakes and what success really looks like. Some firms nominate wellbeing champions, who are available to talk to staff about anything that is concerning them. It is crucial that these people are senior, visible people in the organisation who can correctly signpost staff in the direction of further support if needed.

We also need to see a change in culture within law firms – making wellbeing a priority. Firms should encourage staff to work healthy hours and keep track of their workloads. Long hours can lead to stress and reduce staff performance and moral. Sometimes long hours are unavoidable but staff should have time off to recover from a busy spell and be encouraged to take all their holiday and not work at weekends. Being with friends and family and having the time to pursue the things we enjoy is vital to wellbeing. Some firms such as Foot Anstey in Bristol offer their staff half a day a month as a personal day, recognising how difficult it can be to fit in errands or have some time out when you are working flat out. At Setfords Solicitors in Guildford, lawyers determine their own, flexible hours, with remote working from anywhere in the world. 

World Mental Health Day is a great opportunity to reflect on how we must continue to work together as a profession to better support young people in the law.  We know from a large study of 12,500 lawyers in the US that making the transition into practice is the most vulnerable time in a lawyer’s career. Armed with this knowledge, we should be focusing our efforts on ensuring that the education and training of lawyers equips them to thrive in the legal workplace. 

Elizabeth Rimmer is CEO of LawCare

  •  If you need to talk in confidence about any personal or professional issue, call the LawCare helpline on 0800 279 6888 (open  365 days a year).  Additional information, resources and factsheets are available on the LawCare website